When Anica Miller-Rushing took over as coordinator of the Down East Research and Education Network (DEREN) nearly three years ago, the partnership was still in the early stages of carving out its role in Downeast, Maine. Today, as Miller-Rushing is preparing to leave her position to begin a PhD program at the University of Maine, she reflects on how the network has evolved over time and come into its own. “When I started, the partnership had not yet demonstrated to the community why it was useful, and didn’t really have a sense of who they were,” she remembers. “We had no funding, no long-term plan, and no organizational structure. Now we have a strong dedicated network of individuals, a steering committee comprised of community leaders, defined goals, and funding to support our next projects. We are passionate and ready to go.”
Miller-Rushing accepted the position after the network’s founding coordinator Barbara Arter passed away after a battle with cancer. Under Arter’s tenure, DEREN had become known for hosting a well-attended annual conference called Convergence that brought together conservationists, researchers, and educators for networking and conversation around issues related to land and water in the Downeast region. The transition in leadership provided an opportunity to re-evaluate DEREN’s mission and articulate a path forward.
Getting to where they are now involved a long road of building trust and engaging in sometimes challenging conversations, both internally, and with community partners. In 2015, DEREN secured funding from the CF Adams Charitable Trust and the Maine Community Foundation to undergo strategic planning and partially underwrite the coordinator position. As part of the strategic planning process, DEREN reached out to key stakeholders and devoted time to gaining a better understanding of how the network could add value to its members and the broader community. Based on these conversations, the partnership decided to change its name to the Downeast Conservation Network (DCN), and drafted guiding documents reaffirming the group’s commitment to collaboration supporting healthy landscapes and thriving human communities.
Conservation organizations in Downeast have often run up against perceptions of conserved lands as a drain on the tax base. But is this borne out by data? In what ways does conserved land give back to neighboring communities, monetarily and otherwise? Miller-Rushing explains that investigating these questions empirically was a project that ignited partners’ interest in collaboration.
The economic study proved to be a test of the burgeoning network when the consultant commissioned to do the project failed to produce the work after protracted negotiations. Miller-Rushing recalls this setback as an opportunity for growth. “I think all networks eventually face some obstacle that forces them to figure out how to work together differently,” she ventured. “Over the course of many meetings we asked ourselves, what do we want to do together?” Ultimately these conversations led the network to engage faculty at University of Maine, Orono and establish a funded masters position to take over authorship of the study. The report is now expected for completion in 2018.
Building and Sustaining Momentum
Miller-Rushing explains that the network has been successful in strategically leveraging one grant to procure the next. “We haven’t wasted any opportunities,” she stated. Support from Highstead enabled DCN to conduct a climate resilient biodiversity mapping project that will inform conservation and land management in the Downeast region. This exercise demonstrated that the partners could work together as a network, which in turn helped to attract future funding.
An Innovation Grant from the Jesse B. Cox Charitable Trust supported the continuation of Convergence and a series of “Dialogues in Downeast” that facilitate diverse conversations around tough subjects related to conservation in the region. One of these dialogues, titled “Rockweed Rodeo,” featured varied perspectives on the ecology and management of rockweed, a type of seaweed that grows in Maine’s intertidal zones and the subject of ardent public debate in recent years. Rockweed serves a critical role in marine food webs, supporting over 150 species, and is also prized commercially for use in agricultural fertilizers, heath supplements, and food products. Concerns about the long-term sustainability of harvesting rockweed have prompted legislative efforts regulate the practice, and spurred a call for more research. Attendees learned about rockweed biology and policy issues, contributed to a collaborative art project, and practiced citizen science techniques for collecting data on rockweed.
Recently, DCN received another grant from the Jessie B. Cox Charitable Trust that will seed a transaction cost fund to facilitate land acquisitions and conservation easements in their service area, and help expedite the network’s progression from a “maturing” to a “conserving” regional conservation partnership.
In July, Miller-Rushing announced her plans to step away from her role as coordinator of DCN to pursue a PhD in STEM education at the University of Maine Orono. The systems-level thinking she honed during her time at DCN will inform her research on empowering teacher leaders to enact systems of change.
Miller-Rushing credits the RCP-Network community and coordinator Bill Labich with supporting the development of her skills as a facilitator and a leader in regional conservation. Attending the annual RCP Network gathering and coordinator meetings was particularly formative. “The RCP Network provided a way for me to reach out and learn about how other partnerships are doing things,” she expressed. As DCN has been contemplating structures for the network’s long-term sustainability, Miller-Rushing found fellow coordinators to be generous with their time and expertise. “They were willing to share resources, and to be honest and vulnerable about things they wish they had done differently.”
DCN is currently seeking a new part-time Network Coordinator to shepherd the next phase of the partnership’s development. Miller-Rushing notes that in the coming years, DNC will focus on deepening connections with the region’s academic institutions, exploring ways of communicating the work of the network more effectively, and continuing to foster critical conversations between members of the Downeast community.
The full position description can be found here. To apply, send a cover letter, CV, and a list of four references by September 1, 2017 to Anica Miller Rushing at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Images courtesy of Downeast Conservation Network